West Africa moves towards regional common market

DAKAR (AFP) - Leaders of the 15-nation west African bloc ECOWAS met on Friday for a special summit in Senegal focused on moving the region towards a common market and a single currency by 2020.

While the economy was expected to top the agenda, the Economic Community of West African States conference in the capital Dakar opened with heads of state giving speeches on political tensions in Mali and Guinea-Bissau.

Senegal President Macky Sall welcomed his recently-elected Malian counterpart Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and urged the gathered heads of state to "continue efforts to maintain peace and security in the region".

The regional bloc is expected to consider contributing more troops to the UN mission in Mali (MINUSMA) following a surge in Islamist attacks.

MINUSMA is meant to eventually reach 12,640 troops and police. At the end of July it had just over 6,000, but Nigerian and some Chadian troops have since withdrawn.

France sent troops to Mali in January to halt an advance on the capital Bamako by Al-Qaeda linked Islamist groups and allied Tuareg rebels. It plans to reduce its presence from 3,000 soldiers today to 1,000 by the end of January 2014.

Ivorian leader Alassane Ouattara told the summit that the fight against terrorism in the vast Sahel region abutting the southern Sahara desert was not over, calling on west African nations to "remain at the side of the Malian people".

Guinea-Bissau, where ECOWAS also has troops, was another source of concern for the west African leaders.

After a military coup in 2012, a caretaker regime is due to hold presidential and parliamentary elections on November 24 and speakers in Dakar voiced their hopes for a "happy ending" to the nation's transition to democracy.

But ECOWAS made clear ahead of the summit that the main focus of the day would be clearing a path towards monetary union across the region.

The leaders will discuss a series of recommendations on the creation of a single currency zone, the establishment of a single customs area within ECOWAS territory and signing off on deals to strengthen trade links with the European Union.

One of the key recommendations on the table is the establishment of common tariffs across the zone on imports from non-member countries.

Founded in 1975, ECOWAS groups around 300 million people in eight French-speaking and five anglophone countries as well as two where Portuguese is the official language.

Eight mostly francophone states that make up the West African Economic and Monetary Union, better known by its French acronym UEMOA, use the CFA franc which is pegged to the euro.

The remaining countries - including English-speaking Nigeria which is the continent's most populous nation with nearly 175 million people - have their own currencies.

West Africa hopes to see a common currency for these seven nations by 2015, with the ultimate goal being merger with the UEMOA states and a single monetary zone in ECOWAS by 2020.